Post-totalitarian societies must revert to the memory. Memory is a matter of enlightenment. There is no need to insist on one's memory, one need to confess their guilt.
Memory is becoming one of the most important platforms of modern politics, the area where the hottest wars are unfolding. 20 years ago, no one thought that the past would suddenly become a “minefield”, where we will fight for interpretations of World War II, the Holocaust, Stalin, and so on. Now it has become mainstream.
This topic became particularly relevant in the year of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Spears cross over victory in the Great Patriotic War with mutual accusations of Russia and Poland with some kind of infantile behaviour of world leaders. This takes place against the background of two events related to the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. One took place in Jerusalem, the second — in the former concentration camp. Putin came to one event, and therefore the Poles did not come there, they did not invite Putin to the second, and the Poles explained this by inviting only NATO colleagues. All this is very reminiscent of a joke, when they ask the Armenian radio whether there will be a third world war? The radio replies that there will not be such a war, but there will be such a struggle for peace that it will not seem enough.
We need to talk about a paradigm shift, which seems to have triumphed after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then it seemed that a great moment had come, comparable to 1945. The Germans called this moment zero hour, zero time, when the renewal of historical memory begins, when we begin to build new buildings of memory identity politics from the basement.
This trend continued for a decade and became a short period between the Cold War and the new era of security and terrorism. It ended on September 11, 2001. Now the era of identity has come, people are again starting to fight for memory.
History has made a full circle, and we are not just erasing our past, but rather, falling into it.
If in 1991 we had the world of the future, now the world of the past. We look at gadgets, electric cars, discuss artificial intelligence, and the fact that Elon Musk is going to colonise Mars. Moreover, our political conversations are about the past. This is an amazing paradox.
Transformations occur both in Russia and abroad. Both from below, at the level of individual families, personal stories, and from above - from governments and international coalitions.
Families are beginning to search for their own roots, unearth the stories of their ancestors, and compose genealogical trees. The same can be attributed to the movement of re-enactors. People constantly apply different models of the past. The authorities are interested in search engines and re-enactors — amusing assaults of the Reichstag, for example, are organised.
In so many political discussions, the theme of heritage arises. We are obsessed with this idea now. This is a huge part of our symbolic capital, therefore, a large policy is being conducted on the part of memory. The question arises: why is this happening? There is a very strong demand for dignity and identity.
Imagine if a sign in Moscow-Butovo, as in Dachau
It would be logical to start a conversation about memory with Germany. After the Second World War, the Germans lived under oppression, a stone of collective guilt. It was an occupied country. The Germans were massively, house by house, quarter after quarter, taken to cinemas and forced to watch films, a documentary chronicle of the period when the Allies entered Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Then they were taken to the excavations in the same way. When you arrive at the train station in Dachau, you see a sign showing the German address: we understand that you probably have the most difficult memories associated with the name of our city, but we want to say that we are working with our past and are not proud of it.
Imagine if a poster were to meet you in Moscow Butovo: we understand that the execution range of 1937-1938 is associated with the word Butovo, but we are working with our past. You understand the absurdity of such an assumption and the abyss that separates the work of memory that was carried out in Germany and was not carried out in Russia and is unlikely to be carried out?
In Germany, for a long time there was a discussion about wine, including on the pages of newspapers. As a result, Germany approved the uniqueness and uniqueness of German guilt and the uniqueness of the Holocaust. This has a big imprint on German politics. Think about why Germany accepted over a million refugees during the crisis in the Middle East? Because this country is so rich? Not. Because the historical political consciousness of Germany was formed in the crucible of collective guilt: we burned the Jews, so we are now pursuing a moral policy, including in relation to the persecuted of the modern world.
Memory wars in different parts of the world
In Serbia, as in Russia, there were many repressions and the victim complex was very strong. Serbian identity, however, is defeated by the Ottoman Empire. It was the famous performance of Slobodan Milosevic on the Kosovo field, where all the Serbian princes died. He then first raised the topic that Serbia occupies an undeserved place in the Yugoslav Federation. After that, the flywheel of the Balkan mutual accusations began to unwind, the corpses of the past began to unfreeze. It all ended with the allied bombing of NATO in 1999 by Yugoslavia and its disintegration. Memory has become politics, memory has become blood. Milosevic went to trial.
Spain. This is a country that cannot reconcile with its civil war of 1936-1937. The country is still in a fever. There is the Valley of the Fallen, where both Republicans and Phalangists are buried, in the same place - the place of worship of the ultra-right, the fulfilment of fascist rituals. A huge monument, which was built for almost 20 years.
Franco supporter is demonstrating in Spain. (Photo: Archives)
Spanish national reconciliation was built on the so-called pact of oblivion. The socialists passed a law on historical memory. There was a program about the need to get rid of the memorial, to give it a more religious sound. And after many ships in 2019, Franco’s body was finally taken out. But the problem is still there. The country is still split by historical memory.
One and a half centuries have passed in the United States since the Civil War. And still the country is in a fever. There are different forms of identity in the south of the USA and in the more liberal parts of America — on the coast. Now Trump's presidency is largely based on these memory problems.
In the era of Reconstruction, when the south was reconciled with defeat — this is 1880-1890 —hundreds of monuments to the Confederates were erected. A hundred years later, the discourse of political correctness and post colonialism arises. They begin to look: who are they, Confederates? And they are racist slaveholders. And a mass movement begins to remove their memory, a movement is created to purify and create politically correct American memory. After the election of Trump and the arrival of the Conservatives, a reverse blow came. Conservative America looked up and asked: what is happening at all? Clashes, pickets, guards began near the monuments.
The problem of memory as an unhealed wound lies in the very depths of American consciousness. What can this lead to? The pendulum of history will swing towards the Democrats, and maybe even American dollars will change their appearance. They also depict the slave owners Jackson and Washington.
Eastern Europe. For decades, this region has been deprived of its historic voice. First, because of the Communists, then, after joining NATO and the EU, from geopolitics. But now the old injuries associated with their participation in the Holocaust come out. Anti-Semitism and complicity in the extermination of Jews are unexpected grenades within the public mind.
Another case is the story of the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn. He was simply transferred to a military cemetery, but this caused unrest in society. In turn, in Ukraine for the past three decades, the "Lenin fall." There were only a few monuments to Lenin. The story is still open, but it is an understandable post-imperial story of decommunisation.
Founders of the South African Commission for Truth and Reconciliation Bishop
Desmond Tutu and Former Methodist Pastor Dr. Alex Borraine
at the commission's first hearing, April 1996, East London, South Africa
(Photo: Benny Gool—Oryx Media/Desmond Tutu Peace Centre)
South Africa has been trying to cope with the memory of apartheid with the help of the commission of truth and for reconciliation.
In Latin America, the question of Columbus was raised. For centuries he was considered a hero, he discovered America. And for America, he is the man who began the tragedy of America. For the Incas, the Aztecs, he brought plague and other diseases, which caused their extinction.
Memory Wars in Russia
Russia has very big memory problems. Chaadaev also said that Russia is a country of unconsciousness, that we do not have captivating images of consciousness. In general, our memory is very weak. In Russia, very bad cemeteries, there are no graves that have been stored for centuries. Graves are being destroyed, new ones appear in their place.
Our memory is taken away by the state, empire. Once a few decades or even more often, the Russian people are passed through a meat grinder. Apartments are being taken away, relocations, seals are underway, entire settlements are being flooded (as in the story “Farewell to Matera"), more industrialisation, collectivisation, the 90s. This is the problem of the imperial nation. And the search that people began for their roots is a belated reaction to unconsciousness.
Russians live with a black hole in the middle of their national memory. This is a huge hole that formed in the middle of the 20th century. We walk along the edge of this black hole and are afraid to even look in there. We hardly understand what kind of sacrifices there are, what suffering there was experienced. Not only was there a trauma, but we are still silent about this trauma and are faced with ardent resistance from patriotic discourse.
What is happening against this background? Falsification of history. Now it is generally accepted that the history of Russia is a history of victories. Suvorov, Stalin, Zhukov - all line up in the front and serve the same liturgy of continuous glory of the Russian state. There are absolutely amazing examples. In particular, 28 Panfilov’s men and their mythological feat, which was invented in the Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper. There are documents from the military prosecutor's office that say that there was nothing like that. But Russian Culture Minister Mr Medinsky says: no, there was a feat. He (feat) was in our memory, in our consciousness. He mobilises people so much that we must consider what he was. There should be monuments and memorials. In Soviet history there are many events that fall into this paradigm.
Meanwhile, Kazan is arguing about Ivan the Terrible. His figure as the creator of Moscow statehood is very important and cleansed. His name is now synonymous with great Russian history. But if you listen to the Tatar nationalists, Ivan the Terrible - this is a collapse, the ruin of Kazan, the murder of most of the inhabitants of the city, the ruin of the main mosque, and most importantly - the end of a huge Horde history.
For Kazan, this is the point of national tragedy. And from Moscow there is a fear of Islamic radicalism in Tatarstan, therefore, all manifestations of Tatar nationalism are suppressed in the bud. A vivid example of this: Batyrkhan Agzamov received a sentence for criticizing the capture of Kazan in 1552.
On the mythologisation of Stalin and the era of the USSR
Our era of utopia ended with the collapse of the USSR. But now we are nostalgic for that utopia, we want that, as then, there was ice cream for 19 cents, soda for 3 cents and that the policeman stood smiling at the crossroads. The USSR is given such a gilded image.
At the same time, we observe the formation of the cult of victory, the St. George ribbon as a brace. We have opened the Victory Museums. But why not museums of war? There can be no victory without war. And so it turns out that we have a pure victory without blood and tears, which we can repeat. Hence, these hellish monstrous stickers “we can repeat” with the dates 1941-1945. This is the absolute bottom. On the one hand, the Germans, who now live with the slogan "never again," and on the other hand, we can "repeat." What to repeat? Crippled front-line soldiers without arms and legs, which were taken to Valaam, to repeat tens of millions of deaths?
We reached the point where Stalin came into fashion, he went into the zone of pure branding. Why? This is due to nostalgia in order. People believe that under Stalin there was no torture in the police. This is a kind of protest vote for Stalin. Paradox. This is a fashion that is perceived in a completely demoralised manner. This is a pure simulacrum.
The year 1945 became a factual foundation point for the Russian state, for the Russian consciousness.
Not 1991, not 1917. It is the 1945th. On May 9, 1945, the USSR was at the top of its geopolitical greatness, deciding the fate of the world. All of Russia's current geopolitics is an attempt to return to that state. And the victorious liturgy is not limited to the ninth of May; we have such a permanent secular Easter.
“Memory wars are fraught with military conflicts”
The current Russian government is trying to distance itself from its origin, so the 90s in every possible way defamate as a time of chaos. But this is a very interesting period in our history, when Leviathan crawled back from the shore for a second back into the water. And on the shore sprouted the roots of independent life — economic, political and civil. And in the zero years, Leviathan again crawled out of the water.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin at the exhibition Memory of the Generations
(Photo: Kremlin Press)
The 90s are presented as a resident evil, while imperial nostalgia for Soviet utopia with cheap ice cream, soda and police officer Uncle Stepa is being created. A consistent myth is created that can be easily packaged and sold to people. Show — but there was a great power. But it’s important to understand what a smooth Soviet history is presented to people.
Enlightenment itself will not fall on Russia. We must go the same way as Germany. And the example of Germany is before my eyes. The Germans reproduced such a platform of memory that shaped the political structures and forms of solid memory. Soft memory is literature, narratives. Solid - these are laws, monuments and school books. In Germany, there is soft and hard memory.
Memory is a matter of enlightenment. No need to insist on your memory, you need to admit your guilt. A vicious circle will open when all parties involved admit their private guilt: both Germany regarding the Holocaust, and Russia regarding the occupation of Eastern Europe, detachments, SMERSH, and Poles for complicity in the Holocaust. From this point will the Renaissance begin. An alternative are memory wars which are fraught with civil, political and military conflicts.
Sergei Medvedev, political-scientist and historian. The Political-Science Professor at the Higher School of Economics. From 1999-2004 a lecturer at George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. His professional specialisation includes the European policy of Pope John Paul II.